Trump nominee Kari Dooley prosecuted me on various federal charges. When I refused to plead guilty to any of those charges, Dooley conspired with my lawyer, a public defender named Thomas Belsky, to make me enter an illegal guilty plea. Belsky lied to me, telling me that I had violated a statute when I had not done so. Both lawyers lied to Judge Holly Fitzsimmons in order to persuade her that I had violated that statute. As a result, I got a ten year prison sentence for a crime that Dooley and Belsky knew that I had not committed.
The full story of what happened to me in my legal travails would take a book. This article focuses on just one small, largely self-contained, part of that travesty: what Dooley did to make me enter an illegal guilty plea. I will mention other things only to the extent needed to make clear what Dooley did. I plan to write other articles about the other things that happened.
I had been suffering from major depression for many years when all this began. One way I coped was to participate in online support chat rooms. I was in one of those chat rooms on October 25, 2002, when 15 year old Lauren Fish-Brown showed up. She told us that she had been repeatedly raped by her father. She eventually got me to give her my phone number. We talked that night and she persuaded me that she was still in danger. I tried to get her to get help from people in her area but she refused, claiming that her father had too much local influence. Because I lived in another state, I suggested that she come to my home so that she could talk to people in my area about getting help. She agreed to this. I brought her to my home the next day. She left the day after that and, later that evening, said that I had sexually abused her.
I did not do anything sexual with Fish-Brown, and there’s no good reason to think otherwise. A detailed explanation of why Fish-Brown can’t be believed will have to await another article. In summary though, Fish-Brown had a history of making false claims of abuse, including claims that her father sexually abused her. She gave the authorities three mutually contradictory stories of what happened between us, including mutually contradictory stories of the alleged abuse. Many parts of her stories were contradicted by the things that her friends, family, and therapists had told the authorities. And Fish-Brown’s stated motivations and consequent actions simply made no sense.
Dooley picked one of Fish-Brown’s stories as the basis of her prosecution. In Dooley’s version of events, there was no mention of Fish-Brown’s accusations of her father. According to Dooley, Fish-Brown merely told me that she was having typical parent/teen problems, I told Fish-Brown various lies to persuade her to run away, and I sexually abused Fish-Brown at my home.
My case is United States v. Wells, 03-cr-160, in the District of Connecticut. I was originally charged with offenses relating to the alleged sexual abuse. Since I had no money, Belsky was assigned as my lawyer. In spite of the clear evidence that Fish-Brown was lying and my repeated assertions that I had done nothing sexual with Fish-Brown, Belsky did no more than read the police and FBI reports that Dooley had given him. He also kept the contents of those reports from me, so that I had no idea of just how weak Dooley’s case was. I sat in prison for four months while Belsky pretended to be working on my case. Then he told me that, if I went to trial, I would likely lose and get a 24 year prison term. (I’ll detail this and other misconduct by Belsky in another article.) The alternative was the plea deal that Dooley was offering, where I would admit to sexually abusing Fish-Brown in exchange for what would likely be a seven year prison term. Since I wasn’t about to admit to abusing Fish-Brown, I refused the deal.
While Belsky was trying to persuade me to accept that plea deal, he went to Dooley, without my knowledge, and proposed that I be allowed to plead guilty to kidnapping Fish-Brown. Dooley replied on October 1, 2003, in a letter written to Belsky,
I am writing, as promised, having fully considered your request that the government agree to resolve this matter through a plea of guilty to a charge of kidnaping [sic]. While I believe that there may be times when the circumstances of an Internet enticement/travel case also satisfies the legal elements of kidnaping (on an inveigle or decoy theory), I do not believe that this is such a case.
Five days after Dooley wrote that letter, Belsky gave up trying to get me to accept Dooley’s deal. Belsky then went to Dooley and returned with a kidnapping plea deal. I told Belsky that I didn’t see how I had kidnapped Fish-Brown. Belsky told me that if I had had any motives other than getting help for Fish-Brown when I suggested that she come to my home, I had kidnapped her. I had mentioned to Belsky that I had hoped that Fish-Brown would stick around for awhile. This, Belsky said, was good enough for a kidnapping, and so I agreed to accept the deal.
Dooley was right when she wrote that letter — there was no kidnapping for me to plead guilty to. In order to explain why, I must dig into some kidnapping law. The statute that I supposedly violated is 18 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1). It is generally applied to kidnappings by force, but it can be applied to any sort of kidnapping. I wasn’t accused of using force on Fish-Brown; rather, I was supposed to have used only deception. The statute says, in relevant part,
Whoever unlawfully … inveigles … and holds for ransom or reward or otherwise any person … when the person is willfully transported in interstate … commerce … shall be punished by imprisonment …
The statute is straightforward, and for there to be a kidnapping by deception,
the victim must be unlawfully … deceived into accompanying the accused nonconsensually; he or she must be held by the accused for ransom, reward or otherwise; and he or she must be transported in interstate … commerce.
(United States v. Macklin, 671 F.2d 60, 65 (2nd Cir. 1982).)
So, for me to have kidnapped Fish-Brown, I had to have deceived Fish-Brown into coming with me to my home (that’s the “inveigles” of the statute, which is one of the several ways a victim can be “taken”), I had to have used deception to hold her (for any purpose), and she had to cross a state line while inveigled or held. These things are the “elements” of a kidnapping by deception. Unless all three are present, there is no kidnapping.
Fish-Brown claimed that I had inveigled her and that she had crossed a state line, but she did not claim that I had held her. There was therefore no kidnapping for me to be guilty of, as Dooley correctly observed in her letter. (My own story was even less like a kidnapping; Belsky simply lied when he said that my having unspoken motives sufficed to make my actions a kidnapping. Unspoken motives are not, by themselves, inveiglement.)
(Occasionally, the theory has been advanced that a kidnapping can be accomplished by a single deception that serves to inveigle and hold the victim. The courts have uniformly rejected that theory. See, e.g., United States v. Lentz, 275 F.Supp.2d 723, 734, 736, 738-743 (E.D.Va. 2003), United States v. Boone, 959 F.2d 1550, 1555 (11th Cir. 1992), and Chatwin v. United States, 326 US 455, 464-65 (1946). All of these cases were decided before I entered my plea. There are later cases saying the same thing. The only court to hold otherwise is the one that denied my habeas petition. More on that in another article. Anyway, it is the law that a kidnapping by deception requires more than just inveiglement and interstate transport.)
Getting me to agree to plead guilty was only half the battle. There were other things that had to happen to ensure my conviction. One was to avoid a grand jury, because of the possibility that a grand jury might see that Fish-Brown’s accusations did not add up to a kidnapping. That was simple: Belsky told me that I had to waive indictment as part of the plea deal.
Next they had to construct a plea agreement that would not tip off the judge that the plea was bogus and that I would agree to. Of course, Belsky knew that there was no way that I would put my signature on a plea deal that said that I had abused Fish-Brown. This meant that Dooley (prosecutors write plea agreements) could not, as is common practice, put Fish-Brown’s story in the plea agreement. So she just didn’t.
Dooley would have to give that story at some point, if not in the plea agreement, then at the plea hearing. Which led to their next problem: my alleged conduct plainly did not match the elements of kidnapping. There was no fixing that, so they had to deceive the judge about the elements of kidnapping. This would seem impossible, since judges are supposed to know the law, but the plain fact is that many don’t. And trying was riskless; if the judge happened to catch them at it, they could simply apologize for their “mistake” and move on.
The first step of their campaign was for Dooley to misstate the elements of the offense in my plea agreement. This misstatement, as reported at my plea hearing, was,
The defendant unlawfully took and held a victim against her will, through decoy or inveiglement; and the defendant did so … on purpose; and that the defendant willfully transported the victim in interstate commerce.
(This is from page 29 of my plea hearing transcript. Later page numbers are from the same transcript.)
Note the trick here. Instead of saying that I took Fish-Brown by inveiglement and held her for some purpose, which is what the statute requires, Dooley said that I “took and held” Fish-Brown, through “decoy or inveiglement” — treating “took and held” as a single action accomplished by “decoy or inveiglement”. (The superfluous “decoy” is just lawyerly inflation of language. It is otherwise meaningless here.)
Dooley played the same “take and hold” game in the information (the charging document when a defendant waives indictment), saying that I,
did unlawfully kidnap, inveigle and through decoy, take and hold a minor person for the purpose of ransom, reward, or otherwise, and willfully transported said minor in interstate commerce
When Dooley was asked by Judge Fitzsimmons to explain the elements of kidnapping, she again misstated the elements as,
that the defendant unlawfully took and held the victim against her will, through decoy or inveiglement; that the defendant did so for some purpose; and that the defendant willfully transported the victim in interstate commerce
Dooley then asked for and was granted permission to elaborate on the elements. In this elaboration, on pages 43-44, she had the opportunity to explain that I had to take and then hold Fish-Brown in order to be guilty of kidnapping. This she did not do. She did acknowledge that inveiglement, holding, and interstate transport are all aspects of a kidnapping. But nowhere did she say that taking and holding are separate things, and that I had to do two different things, one to take and the other to hold. To further obscure matters, much of her discussion of the elements had nothing to do with the charge in the information, and she didn’t discuss the facts of my case at all, never mind how they satisfied the elements of kidnapping.
Then came the time for Dooley to describe her case. Judge Fitzsimmons told me to pay close attention, as I would be asked if I agreed with what Dooley said I did. Dooley’s case is on pages 46-51. Immediately following, on page 52, Dooley once again stated the elements,
the defendant inveigled the victim, and through deception, clear and otherwise, transported her in interstate commerce, and held her against her will for some purpose
This time, unlike all the others, Dooley stated the three elements and made clear that the inveiglement and the holding are separate things. This was a big mistake on her part; had Judge Fitzsimmons been paying attention, she would have noticed that this statement of the elements was very different from the others. It also, in combination with the letter Dooley wrote Belsky, shows that Dooley knew full well that the plea she was facilitating was illegal.
Once Dooley was done describing her case, it was time for Judge Fitzsimmons to ask me whether I had done what Dooley said that I had done. Dooley and Belsky knew that I would say that I hadn’t, if for no other reason than that I wasn’t about to agree that I had abused Fish-Brown. This was a problem for them because, once I rejected Dooley’s story, Judge Fitzsimmons would ask me what, in my view, really happened. Once it became clear that my version of events differed radically from Dooley’s, Judge Fitzsimmons would have killed the deal.
So, as soon as Dooley stopped talking and Judge Fitzsimmons thanked her, Belsky popped up with, “Your Honor, could I have one moment with Mr. Wells?” Off the record, Belsky told me to just say that I disagreed with Dooley. Then Judge Fitzsimmons said, “All right. Mr. Wells, I saw you listening to Ms. Dooley. Do you agree with her summary of what it is that you did?” I replied, “Her summary does not describe what I recall was happening.” (Page 52.)
Once again Belsky popped up. He first confirmed that I disagreed with much of Dooley’s story. Then, to keep Judge Fitzsimmons from asking me to tell my story, he said,
That being said, [Mr. Wells] still believes and admits that there are facts that are sufficient to satisfy the elements of the offense, namely that he did indicate something to the young girl who — that was not true, and that that was an incentive, or induced her to come with him.
Given the status of the law, even though the girl appeared to go willingly, given that Mr. Wells did say something false to her to induce her to go, that deception overrides the consent.
Furthermore, Mr. Wells did do this with the intent of having her come and be with him for a period of time, for something of his own purposes, and that obviously, he did transfer — travel in interstate commerce with this individual.
Here, Belsky is continuing the deception that Dooley started, and is suggesting the questions that Judge Fitzsimmons should ask me. She let herself be led; instead of asking me to explain in my own words what I did to violate the law, she merely turned Belsky’s assertions into questions,
THE COURT: All right.
So, did you, Mr. Wells, beginning on October 25th, of 2002, first by computer, and then subsequently by the telephone, speak to the young wonabn who’s the victim in this matter, and by telling her some things that weren’t true, induce her to agree to come to your residence?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes. Yes, I did.
THE COURT: All right.
And the purpose of doing that was to satisfy a plan or a need of your own rather than something to do with counseling or treating this girl?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: All right.
And in the course of doing that, you transported her from Connecticut to New Jersey through Pennsylvania?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
I really should have said, “no”, or at least quibbled, when answering. Why didn’t I? In a phrase, “major depression”. By the time of this hearing, I had been imprisoned for 15 months without any mental health treatment or even psychological support. I wasn’t exactly thinking well, and I just wanted the whole thing to be over. And Belsky had assured me that I was guilty. Not to mention the feeling that I didn’t want to queer the deal and end up with a 24 year prison sentence.
(I note that most of the 15 months was taken up by inordinate delays in the evaluation of my competency. Somehow, the court appointed shrinks failed to notice my depression. But a prison psychiatrist had no trouble diagnosing “recurrent major depression” just two months after I was sentenced. But that’s a story for another article.)
And that, pretty much, was that. I had, as far as Judge Fitzsimmons could tell, admitted to the elements of kidnapping. Dooley and Belsky had pulled off their crime. All that was left were a few formalities and I could be pronounced guilty. Among those formalities:
[THE COURT:] Mr. Belsky, do you know of any reason why I should not allow your client to plead guilty to this charge?
MR. BELSKY: No, Your Honor.
[THE COURT:] Ms. Dooley, do you know of any reason why I shouldn’t allow the defendant to plead guilty to this charge?
MS. DOOLEY: I do not, Your Honor.
Dooley and Belsky knew that Judge Fitzsimmons and I had been lied to about what constitutes a kidnapping. Dooley and Belsky knew that there was no kidnapping for me to be guilty of. They simply lied, to ensure that my plea would be accepted. And it was.
I eventually challenged my conviction on the grounds that there was no kidnapping and that I didn’t understand the nature of the charge, along with several other grounds. Why that challenge failed is another sorry story of wrongdoing, this time mostly by judges, which I will tell in another article.